Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Standing on the threshold of a new age

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Once upon a time when ‘urbanisation’ had not yet caught on, this was another country. Outside the urban centres, this was a land of wide-open vistas of swaying fields of wheat, rice or sugar cane as weather permitted. This was a land of spreading banyan trees that, I was learn much later, figured on one-inch army topographical maps as ‘survey trees.’ And this was a country of fine stands of shisham and acacia trees, roadside ponds ablaze with red and blue lotus flowers and fresh water streams alive with tortoises and fish.

In those days of the late 1950s and through the following decade, when the family drove up the Grand Trunk Road to Rawalpindi or took the N-5 down to Multan, the ride was through a marvellous landscape. The Degh River just a few kilometres north of Lahore was a clear water stream whose banks were lined with anglers – especially if it was a Sunday. Gujranwala was a tiny little town where we swept past only a handful of stores and several lovely old town houses.

Similarly for Gujrat, while Jhelum was remarkable for the church that came into view as the car entered the old Jhelum River bridge. In those days the church stood in a wide-open meadow where buffaloes grazed. One thing that did not escape even us children was the very frequent spreading banyan tree shading a pond that could either be brick-lined or just plain. The sole surviving tree is the one near Sohawa (on the left side of the road as one motors towards Rawalpindi) whose accompanying pond is now sadly dry. All the others have been sacrificed to the ever-widening roads.

On the other side, along the N-5, my memory of passing Okara is not, I repeat, not seeing any habitation. An older cousin who was then an engineer told me that British road builders had ensured that all intercity roads pass one mile from habitation and were connected to it by a link road. Today passing through Pattoki, Okara or any other place that does not have a by-pass is nightmare.

In 1979 I moved to Karachi and for the next ten years travelled extensively in the interior of Sindh and Balochistan. Super Highway actually began at Sohrab Goth and ended in the wilderness outside Hyderabad. In its entire length of 160-odd kilometres, the only sign of human intervention was the Nooriabad Industrial Estate with its chimneys. Similarly, the old N-5 connecting these two cities via Thatta passed through the loveliest countryside imaginable. The Gharo River meandering through acacia and mesquite bushes was a sight and Thatta was a right lovely little town with its badgirs (wind-catchers) looking in open-mouthed wonder to the southwest

In the interior country roads such as what is now known as the Indus Highway (connecting Hyderabad and Shikarpur via Sehwan and Larkana) was truly magical. On the one side were occasional glimpses of the Sindhu River beyond patches of cultivation and on the other of the tortured, barren hills of the eastern-most offshoot of the Khirthar Mountains.

But the most magical of all places was Balochistan. It was the only land within this country where one could actually be with one’s self for mile after mile after mile. Even as recently as the mid-1980s, the drive from Karachi to say Lasbela or Kalat along the RCD Highway was remarkable for its loneliness. In the early 1980s I drove several times between Karachi and Lasbela and once all the way to Quetta and on all occasions I halted frequently simply to savour the peace and solitude of the land. For long minutes, perhaps even as much as half an hour, no traffic passed as I sat by the road to watch dozens of dust devils waltzing in the distance against misty blue hills.

In Makran there were no roads at all. The journey along the seaboard from Karachi to Gwadar took two days and one arrived with a goodly portion of the desert deposited on one’s self. It took a long, long bath to wash the dust away. The dirt road between Gwadar, Turbat and on to Panjgur passed through the most remarkable landscape of dry, broken hills and riverbeds that saw water only rarely when rain fell.

A handful of kilometres from Gwadar on the west bay the hills of Pishukan, completely unpopulated and waterless were the most fascinating place ever. Seen against a low sun they looked (and still do) like the skyscraper-filled skyline of some modern city. Now with Gwadar being turned into the next Dubai (or whatever else they plan), urbanisation has hit this region in a big way. Sooner than we know, west bay will be choc-a-bloc with concrete monstrosities that will block out the beauty of the Pishukan hills.

In recent years I have seen Karachi expand all the way to the Hub River both along RCD Highway and on the tree-shaded and peaceful Hub Dam Road. Along the former we have an industrial estate and its auxiliary residential areas as well as the shanties that were bound to happen. On the latter the sprawling Hamdard University has taken away the magic. Within years of the establishment of the university, Karachi began to encroach in that direction. Today as one drives up to the dam, one is never alone. And if I am not wrong, a lot of trees, mainly acacia and tamarisk, have been destroyed in the bargain.

Even the lonely RCD Highway has not escaped urban pressure as places as quaint and remote as Khuzdar and Wadh have encroached upon the road. This invasion is mostly in the form of glitzy restaurants and unseemly truck stops. Though I have not been on this road for nearly twenty years, friends tell me that no longer can one stop and savour the solitude of Balochistan for more than a few minutes at a time without being disturbed by passing buses.

In the case of Punjab and NWFP, the least said the better. Today one can drive from, say, Peshawar to Lahore or Multan or even all the way to Karachi and never be out in the country. Today the entire 1000 plus kilometre length of the N-5 is an endless bazaar. The views of swaying sugar cane or golden wheat along the road are a thing of the past. Now all one sees is an endless procession of grimy workshops and filthy restaurants. If it is not that, then it is a succession of equally unsightly factories.

Gone are the days of the wide-open vistas. Unchecked urbanisation has destroyed the magic of intercity travel. So few people today realise that as we once went tooling along the highways, we got to know this country; its rivers and trees, its birds and animals and all that grew on it that made up our food. Unchecked urban spread has not only deprived us of a landscape that my generation knew. It has defiled this land in more ways than one.

For one, vast tracts of farmland on the periphery of urban centres have been made over for housing estates. Indigenous trees were without fail the first casualty in this deal. All the wonderful, spreading banyan, pipal, mulberry, acacia and shisham were laid low to demarcate plots and lay out the grid of roads. In their stead, ignorant developers planted the water-guzzling eucalyptus and the only tree we now see is this accursed alien species. Secondly, unplanned urban expansion has destroyed dozens of fresh water streams. The Degh, the Aik and the Palkhu are just a few examples.

We now stand on the threshold of a new age where we will not know this country. In a few years most urban people will only know ugly concrete jungles, not spreading fields of wheat and paddy. Small wonder then that we are going crazier and crazier and ever more violence-prone.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 16 April 2015 at 11:14, Blogger Spade said...

Urbanization is being carried out without proper thought for flora and fauna, perhaps this may be of interest

At 16 April 2015 at 19:52, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

The cause of urbanization is non provision of basic human need which has never been extended to the rural. Therefore per force people shifted to urbin area that to ill planed


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days